Chewa Proverbs and Taboo Topics
By Madalitso Mulingo
Okpewho (1983: 226) defines a proverb as folk wisdom expressed concisely and with charm. That is, proverbs are short and that there is literary or poetic beauty in their expression. Proverbs are not attributed to a specific author, they are communally owned. They are often traditional old sayings transmitted orally and they are part of people’s everyday life. As Chakanza (2000:11) indicates, the experiences and wise advice contained in proverbs is derived from observations concerning the nature and behaviour of human beings. Other proverbs indicate historical facts, customs, practices, philosophical thoughts, religious beliefs and people’s values. New proverbs continue to appear even today from people who are observant, experimental and thoughtful.
Proverbs allow people to be able to talk about topics that are considered taboo in the society such as sex and sexuality which the society believes is indecent and therefore it is not supposed to be discussed in public. Talking about sex and sexuality openly is considered taboo in many African societies just like it is in the Malawian society. However, if the same topic is employed in a proverb, it ceases to be regarded as taboo. Proverbs that are used to address such taboos are often referred to as risqué proverbs (Mlachira, 2003).
Chichewa contains a lot of proverbs which contain vocabulary concerning sex and sexuality and other taboo topics. The question we attempt to answer is why taboo topics evade the taboo mark when used in proverbs. The proverbs are often employed when pronouncing speeches, advising youths and also adults against bad behaviour in the society. They are also used at traditional tribunals and during certain traditional rituals. Proverbs can be used during any time of the day.
One of the most commonly used proverbs is Kunja nkumpheto sikuchedwa kugalamuka. Translated into English as weather behaves unpredictably just like genitalia, it compares weather with genitals in that they both have one underlying characteristic: unpredictability. For example, genitalia always get aroused anyhow just as the weather changes any time. The proverb contains a strongly obscene word kumpheto (genitalia). However, it is not regarded as taboo since it is part of the tradition of the community. In general, this proverb advises people to avoid procrastination, to do things in time. For example, it advises people to cultivate their farms early to avoid unforeseen circumstances since weather may change anytime as it is unpredictable.
The proverb Taleka ndiyese anakwata mkazi wa mfumu is another example of a proverb with obscene content. It is translated into English as ‘The one who tried to convince the chief’s wife managed to have sex with her’. The wisdom contained in the proverb is that if one works hard, they will achieve their goals in otherwise seemingly impossible circumstances. Generally, it talks about determination and perseverance when one is undertaking a mission. This proverb contains an obscene word kukwata (to have sex with a female) which cannot be deployed in regular conversations in the society.
Another example of a risqué proverb is Linda mphepo kuti uwone maliseche a nkhuku. Literally, it translates into ‘Wait for wind to blow in order for you to see a chicken’s genitals’. The proverb contains advice to people on patience in undertakings targeting a goal that is otherwise difficult to achieve. Another possible interpretation of the proverb is that it is in times of adversity and crisis that one knows the real character of their friends. The proverb generally talks about patience and perseverance. It contains an undesirable word maliseche (private parts).
Chulutsa masamba kuti usagwire nsete is another example of a risqué proverb. It can be translated into English as ‘You need to have enough leaves for wiping your butt to avoid spoiling yourself with remains of faeces around the anal area’. In the village, people normally use leaves as toilet paper. This proverb advises people to get well prepared to avoid suffering consequences; it generally talks about good preparation and intelligence. The proverb contains an obscene word nsete (remains of faeces around the anal area) which can never be used in an otherwise ordinary conversation.
Another proverb that contains obscenity deployed in proverbial conversations by Chichewa speakers is Chigololo ndi mwini thako. Literally, it translates into ‘It is the owner of the buttocks who determines whether sexual intercourse is to take place or not’. This proverb is used to counsel female initiates among the Chewa ethnic group. It suggests that it is the woman who determines the possibility of sexual intercourse taking place or not. If a woman does not want to engage in sexual intercourse with a man, there is no way sex cannot happen. The idea behind this proverb is to encourage female initiates to abstain from sex with emphasis on its possibilities by insinuating that sex happens at a lady’s discretion. The proverb uses offensive words chigololo (sexual intercourse) and thako (buttock) which are not favourable words in ordinary conversations in the Malawian societies.
Chichewa speakers also use the proverb Chamuna sayanika. The proverb translates into English as ‘One ought not to expose genitals in public’. This proverb is used to advise men, especially married men, against infidelity. Husbands should not expose their private parts to other women other than their wives. They must be faithful.
Kamba anyelera amene wamtola is another proverb with an offensive vocabulary. Translated into English as ‘The tortoise will defecate on the one who is carrying it’, the proverb warns against failure to handle the people we are helping with caution. Sometimes, it is the people we help who will reciprocate our kindness with horrible action. Its target is the ungratefulness of humans. The proverb has the word kunyera (defecate) which is undesirable and unacceptable in general discourses in the society. The direct reference to the word is still made in the proverb because it is tradition.
Another of such obscene proverbs is Wokwata kwa mphenzi saopa kung’anima: the one who accepts to have sexual intercourse with lightning should not be afraid of the light. If one wants to take a risk, they should be ready to face consequences head on. Generally, the proverb talks about being courageous when making decisions in life. It uses the word kukwata (to have sex) which is not used just anyhow unless it has to be used.
The proverb Kaitana kavula, ukachechedwa ukapeza katavala is also another commonly used risqué proverb among the Chewa. Literally, it is translated as ‘what has summoned you is naked, if you delay you will find it dressed’. The proverb teaches people to make decisions quickly without hesitation lest one may miss an opportunity. It contains the word kuvula (to undress) which is considered impolite to talk about in public because it connotes the first step taken in the event that two people have decided to have sex.
Kandiyerekere anagwa m’mpheto mwa apongozi is another example of a proverb with offensive content. It translates into English as ‘A proud person fell in between his mother-in-law’s legs’. The proverb posits that pride leads into humiliation. It teaches people to be humble and to refrain from actions which will lead them into trouble. The proverb contains an offensive word mpheto (genitals) which one will not encounter in regular conversations among the people.
Maso alibe uku n’kwa apongozi is another Chichewa proverb with obscene vocabulary. Translated into English as ‘Eyes do not choose what to see and what not to, even if it is your father-in-law’s or your mother-in-law’s genitals’, it teaches that sometimes in life there are some things which are destined to happen, you cannot have any control over them. For instance, one cannot control death; it is inevitable that everyone will experience death at some point in life. In general, this proverb talks about destiny and the unpredictable character of life. The proverb employs an undesirable word kwa apongozi (father/mother-in-law’s genitals).
Lastly, another example of a Chichewa proverb with obscene vocabulary is Manyi akale sanunkha which translates into English as ‘Old faeces do not produce odour’. It is sometimes important to dump old ways and adopt modern ways. In general, the proverb encourages adaptation to change. The proverb contains the word manyi (faeces) which is undesirable in general conversations in the society.
The Chewa proverbs clearly demonstrate that as pieces of oral literature, they play a significant role of acting as a podium through which various taboo topics such as sex and sexuality may be addressed. These proverbs contain words and expressions which are unacceptable to make reference of them in public in Malawian societies which are culturally conservative. However, these words and expressions cease to be considered unacceptable when they are deployed in proverbs because the proverbs are part of folk wisdom of the society.
Employing of proverbs as a tool for addressing taboo topics is a useful function in several ways. The use of offensive words in proverbs helps people to be attentive and understand well the advice that are contained in there. The use of obscene words and proverbs also preserves people’s image. That is, an individual will not tarnish his or her image if they employ obscene and undesirable words and expressions in proverbs. Nevertheless, if an individual uses the same obscene words and expressions in normal speech, he or she will be regarded as a vulgar person.
In conclusion, proverbs play an important role in society by permitting people to talk about shocking, undesirable and unacceptable things, such as issues of sex and sexuality, considered as taboo without offending anyone.
Chakanza, J.C. (2000). Wisdom of the People: 2000 Chinyanja Proverbs. Blantyre: CLAIM.
Mlachila, M. (2003). Miyambi ya m’Chichewa: Old Wisdom for New Realities. Retrieved on June 13, 2017 from http://malawiwashington.tripod.com/events/2003extravaganza/miyambi- ya-mchichewa-
Okpewho, I. (1992). African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity. Bloomington: Indiana
Madalitso Mulingo holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Education Language from The University of Malawi, Chancellor College. He is a French Linguistics major and African Languages and Linguistics minor. Currently, he is a Tutor in the Department of African Languages and Linguistics at Chancellor College, but he is also a Lecturer in Literature and Linguistics at Nkhoma University, Lilongwe. An ardent reader of literary works, he believes in Art as activism.